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My Dad, SOPA and Me

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In our family we have two takes on copyright issues and SOPA. These two approaches reflect the gap between digital and offline worlds.

Let's look at my case first. I'm a researcher, journalist and author, and I strongly support copyright. However, I would never apply the old-fashioned copyright to this post, because this text doesn't have creative value. It will be read only once, and it is like milk and bread: a commodity. Therefore, there's no sense to protect the post with copyright. Instead, it is more worthwhile to expand the audience footprint by encouraging readers to republish the post. That spreads the word about my work, and keeps a constant flow of new, relevant people contacting me for collaboration.

Therefore, whenever I have the say, I apply Creative Commons license in my posts, just like news outlet Al Jazeera did during the Arab Spring. Al Jazeera perceived that there's more value for them to spread the news content online with an open license, with Al Jazeera's logo on it, rather than just publishing the news content on their websites.

My Dad is a photographer who has documented the life of the indigenous Sami people in Finland since the 1960s. If my Dad's pictures weren't protected by copyright, the value of his work would diminish. If his photos were used without permission, he would sue the illegal publisher. Copyright protects.

In science, the author typically owns the copyright for the work. Citations are the currency of science; however, academic publications are locked into databases, which typically are closed from the public. By paying high fees one gets access. Therefore, smart scholars such as Eric von Hippel, have made their work accessible online for free. When the copy is available for free, there will be more citations.

The SOPA debate is not about unraveling the traditional copyright. Nobody is taking away the authors' and photographers' copyrights. Instead, the battle is about whose responsibility it is to monitor the copyright violations on the Web, and how this monitoring is being realized.

In the SOPA debate, and a similar debate in the European Union with the ACTA agreement, societies are attempting to identify how the offline-world's copyright fits into the digital world. Hollywood's music and movie business allied with traditional media companies want to push forward a law which fits to the offline world. The opposing forces, including tech giants like Google, want to have a law that follow the principles on the Web --and they want to define those principles.

For those who support applying offline world's rules online, I recommend checking out a pie chart presented by a French colleague Frédéric Filloux. The chart tells what sort of content moves online. The online movie store Netflix takes as much bandwidth in the United States as BitTorrent takes in Europe. Thus, legal content sales are possible.

But only when the transactions are made easy enough! An opposite experience to Netflix in user-friendliness is a situation experienced by my friend. He heard about a good documentary called Miss Representation, and he wanted to watch it with his girlfriend in the evening. He assumed he can buy the film online, but it turns out that the film is showed only in private screenings, typically at schools. There wasn't any private screenings available in his area, so the only way to watch the film legally would have required him to request for a screening right, and pay for the right. My friend used BitTorrent instead.

He obviously did a wrong thing by violating the copyright. However, this is a good example of applying the offline world model to the Web. Miss Representation movie producers lose money because of this. There are less people who will pay to organize a screening event, than people who would buy the film online to see it on their own laptop whenever they want to. Ironically enough, Miss Representation wants to become a viral phenomenon on the Web.

How about individual creative workers, like me and my Dad, who leads the frontier for us in SOPA? I would say: Nobody does.

The worker unions don't have much voice in the battle of tech and media giants here in the United States. And these giants don't care what happens to our pictures and posts. Publishers want to take copyrights from the creative workers -- for free -- and make money on the content. Most of them have failed in the monetization part, as their legacy business models don't work on the Web. The tech giants, such as Google, want to index all the information in the world -- including my posts and my dad's pictures -- distribute and sell it.

Because we are left alone in this battle, my Dad and I have to discover for ourselves which business logic and distribution model serves our purposes online. In an ideal case, legislation would support our goals as well, not only the big players'. As a citizen I would hope so, but I suppose I'm being utopian.